So in San Francisco we finally got to meet the reporter we were supposed to last time, the guy who’d gotten sick and they’d sent a woman in his place, the one Ziggy had gotten extra friendly with. If you ask me, the guy was kind of full of himself, but at least he seemed to know his stuff, and he didn’t take up too much of our time.
We were staying at a small hotel south of the city, near the Cow Palace. We’d played here once before, that time we’d opened for MNB, but what was funny is that backstage it didn’t look that familiar to me. They must have renovated or rearranged or something. Or maybe I just didn’t remember.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because we didn’t see the Cow Palace until the next day. The day we arrived was all press and more press and then dinner in the city with the promoter and some of his people. Digger was in his element schmoozing it up with them, while me and the guys in the band didn’t have to do much but eat, smile, and sign a few autographs.
There’s a certain kind of guy you meet at these things who fancies himself an expert on guitars. Sometimes they know their stuff and it’s fun to talk to them. Sometimes they’re just a rich guy though who wants to tell you about the latest expensive toy he bought. I wonder if NASCAR drivers get guys coming up to them wanting to talk about the Maserati or Porsche they just bought or whatever. (How much you want to bet it’s the same guys…)
I humor them. Like I said, sometimes they’re okay, and sometimes they might even be able to play a little. Okay, most people suck at the guitar, but here’s where I think I differ from most professional musicians. It doesn’t actually bother me that people suck at the guitar. Part of the whole point of the guitar is that with a sort of basic grasp of how it works you can be off and running and give it your best shot to sound like Elvis Presley or whoever. As an instrument it’s a little weird, because it’s undeniably a folk instrument but there is “classical guitar” too. Not that many instruments have both. There are no “casual” bassoon players.
And then there’s the electric guitar which is like the electric toaster. Everyone can make half-decent toast with it.
What I’m trying to say is that if you suck at the guitar, that’s okay. You don’t actually suck. What you’re actually doing is just expressing yourself, which is what it’s all about. If you had four hours a day to practice, you’d get better, but the fundamental whatever you express with your playing, that still wouldn’t change. It’d get easier, maybe. And the way it sounds might get closer to what you’ve got in your head…
I should just shut up before I dig this hole any deeper, but the more I meet people the more I realize that I do something for a living that some of them dream of, but more of them would flip out if they had to. Get up in front of people and play, I mean. Sometimes I can’t even get people to just play along with me. They’re shy. They think I’m going to judge them. Here’s the thing. I’m not. Every player is worth something. Every player has something they do that’s unique. Some chord change or lick or expression. The way the fingers and strings can combine is basically infinite.
So when there’s a chance, and one of these guys talks a big game, I like to put a guitar in his hands and see what he does. Some of them refuse. Okay. Some of them actually show me something, though. If they just let it out, be themselves. It’s not about perfect technique or how fast you can play.
Unfortunately, at the dinner setting there were no guitars, so I had to listen to a guy natter on for a while about some special edition Ibanez he lusted after. Could’ve been worse. We got out of there fairly early as these things go, since some of the promoter’s people had other shows they had to be at that night. Which meant it was just barely nightfall when we were getting out of there.
“Can we catch a cab back later, if we want to see some of the city?” Ziggy asked Carynne, while we were standing on the curb waiting for the van to come around.
“Are you asking for permission or whether the logistics work?” she asked back, only half joking. “Here.” She dug in her bag and handed a card to him. “That’s the address. A cab’ll be a little pricey, but it’s not like it’ll break the bank.”
“Okay. Who wants to ride a cable car? Bart?”
Bart shrugged. “Michelle’s already in the city. I’m going to meet her at Fisherman’s Wharf. You guys want to come with?”
“Nah, you two have a romantic time.” Ziggy stuck his hands in his pockets. “I’m going to find an actual cable car.”
“There was a stop at the bottom of a hill a couple of blocks from the hotel we stayed in last time,” I said.
“Okay, come on, then.”
He and I set off walking. I had a vague but fairly accurate, as it turned out, idea of where we were and where we had to go. We took BART and got off somewhere along Market Street.
Ziggy had a camera with him, a small Nikon, and he snapped various pictures as we went, including some of me, or that had me in them.
The cable car was actually kind of scary, or it would’ve been when I was a kid. It made clanking and creaking noises, and the hill was really steep, and I kept thinking, if there’s an earthquake, won’t we just go crashing back down the hill? Then again, I told myself, they’ve had a lot of earthquakes around here, and this cable car is still here, so what do I know?
We didn’t talk a lot. We didn’t have to. That more than anything made me feel like maybe we were really comfortable with each other again, at last. That and Ziggy didn’t shoplift anything, or barge into any recording studios, or what have you.
No, Ziggy didn’t really start to act like Ziggy under we were walking around a bit later, when I realized we were right near the strip joint where Digger and I had our fight, or our understanding, or whatever it was.
I tried to describe it to Ziggy. “The last time we were here, Digger took me and Remo to a strip club.”
“No kidding. It’s somewhere in this neighborhood. That night we went to the Moroccan place, remember?”
“Was that weird? I mean, him being your dad and all?”
“It wasn’t the first time he took me to one,” I said.
“Wait, was he like, testing if you were gay?”
“The first time.” Ziggy frowned at me while we walked.
“You know, I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but maybe.” I really didn’t want to re-live my fourteenth birthday just then. We steered around a bum lying on the sidewalk, curled against a wall. “I mean, I didn’t really know myself, either, right? Whatever. Last time we were here he took us to a place and I told him off.”
“Told him off? You mean, you told him?”
“Well, that’s the thing. I didn’t actually come out and sa– and come out. I basically said some judgmental shit to him about him being a perv and he basically told me I had no right to judge him. And we agreed we had no right to judge each other on how we get off.”
“Yeah. So I think he knows, and that was his way of saying he doesn’t really want to know, but he’s not going to say anything about it. Or maybe he was too drunk to make sense and maybe he doesn’t even remember it now.” I shook my head. “Okay, I should stop talking about this now before it gets depressing.”
“Depressing? It’s hilarious. Well, when it’s happening to someone else, that is,” Zig said. “Wow. Did I ever tell you about coming out to my mother?”
“What? No. Wait, coming out to her as what?”
He laughed. “I was ten or eleven and I had decided I was in love with the two kids who lived in the apartment next door, a brother and a sister. Twins, actually, and they were both in my grade, in my class. So we played together all the time. This was in Baltimore.”
“Now, my mother was kind of a diva. Is, I should say. She hasn’t changed.” He made a motion like he was fluffing his hair. “And she was getting ready to go out for the night, doing her hair and makeup, and I was sitting next to her. She was going to leave me off at their house on her way out and they’d watch me until she came back.”
“Where was she going?”
“She was actually doing some kind of bar hostess gig where she got to sing once in a while, I think. I actually am not sure. In her mind, she was a star waiting to be discovered. I don’t know that facts ever entered into the picture.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I tugged on her sleeve and asked her to make me pretty, too.”
For some reason I could picture this.
“‘Why, my beautiful boy,’ she said, ‘you don’t need any makeup to be the most beautiful boy in the world.’ But I told her it was a special occasion and so I thought I should get extra dressed up and made up. ‘What’s the occasion?’ she asked. And I told her I was going to propose marriage that night to Dina and Anthony, because they were twins and I was going to marry both of them, since if I married just one it wouldn’t be fair, since you can’t split twins up.”
“Oh.” I wanted to ask how she took this news, but I figured he’d tell me. This was the most I’d heard Ziggy talk about his childhood, ever. “That’s the kind of thing that makes sense when you’re a kid, I guess.”
“Exactly. At first she sort of humored me. Like haha, the crazy things kids say. But when she came to pick me up that night, I was in trouble.”
“See, the twins accepted my proposal of marriage, and we had a little play ceremony there in their bedroom, and then I insisted we have our ‘wedding night.'”
He nodded. “When their mother caught us they both had their hands down my pants.”
“And of course my mother was angry when she came to get me, and she had a fight with the neighbor right there, who interrogated her kids in front of us all, and my mother made it all sound like the twins were the ones molesting me, so she swore she would never let me set foot in their house again… oh it was a huge scene.”
“Every parent believes their child is a perfect angel and other children must be to blame. But by the time we left there… I could hear the twins getting spanked.” He stuck the camera back into the shoulder bag he was carrying, and then his hands into his pockets. “So the thing is, I could’ve gotten off scott free, no punishment, no blame, if I’d just kept my mouth shut at that point. She was so mad that she’d lost her free babysitting, though! But we get home, and I basically put on my serious face and told her that I didn’t think it was fair she wasn’t going to let me see them anymore, since they were my true loves, and hadn’t she always said that sex was okay when you really love a person?”
“I did. She was bringing home different men every so often, and at some point I had reacted to it, and she’d told me this whole line about how it was okay for her to entertain them without marrying them as long as it was true love. She didn’t much appreciate getting her words bent back on her that way, especially when I insisted I loved them both and so I deserved to have them both. Well, she beat my ass then, but she never said I was wrong.”
“Wow. So your first crush on a guy you were ten?”
He shrugged. “It wasn’t a crush. It wasn’t like that. It was more like I was playing house, just a very physical game of house. Trying on the idea of being in love, but not actually knowing what that was. I thought it was love if you exchanged cards on Valentine’s Day in class, you know?” He shrugged again. “It hadn’t even occurred to me there was something gay about giving Anthony Santucci a valentine. You know, I was giving his sister one, and I thought of them as a two-person package. Dina gave me my first hand job a couple years later. I never got into her pants, though. Anthony basically never spoke to me again after our ‘wedding’ night, but Dina always made eye contact when we were at school and stuff. She jerked me off behind the building the night before my mother moved us to New York.”
I was curious about a million things. Was it her idea or his? Could people see them? But I didn’t want to ask.
“What about you? When was your first crush?” he asked me.
“Shit, I don’t know. I had a lot of crushes and didn’t know that’s what they were,” I said. “There were guys I hung around who I had no chance to really be friends with, but I was attracted to them in the literal sense. Like a magnet just pulling me around.” I remember liking the way a kid in my third grade class smelled. I can’t remember his name, though. “In elementary school I was a nerdy band geek but I would follow around these athletic boy scouts who would kick dirt on me and stuff. Pathetic, really. When I got a little older, like junior high, I got a little more savvy. The guitar opened doors, though. By high school I could go around with any crowd I wanted. I learned all the popular songs. All the girls liked me but I never made a move on them, which was probably why they all liked me, and their boyfriends liked me for the same reason. I was very anti-popularity and conformity by then, though, so the guys I wanted to hang around were the more rebellious types, not the jocks. So they’d smoke weed and get their dicks sucked in the back of their cars while I sat on the hood if the car with their friends and played a song. And later I’d go home and wonder what it was like.”
“What what was like?”
“Getting sucked. Or doing the sucking. Both, I guess.”
He made a frustrated sort of noise. “The problem now is I want my dick sucked.”
I did, too, actually, but I wasn’t about to say so.
“But thank you for telling me that. Even if you have left me with a bit of a… condition.” He adjusted himself inside his jeans and then narrowed his eyes toward a somewhat seedy-looking establishment across the street.
Don’t go in there, I wanted to say, but I didn’t.
He looked at me, then back at the place. “We could split up here,” he suggested. “You don’t have to wait for me, you know.”
I thought about it for maybe two seconds. It was obvious from the look of the guys who went in and out of the place that it was probably a good bet Ziggy could get his dick sucked in there. Probably he could just stick it through a glory hole, the guy would never even see his face, and it wasn’t likely he could catch anything from getting sucked off…
“I’ll wait for you,” I said, my voice barely louder than a whisper. “Be quick.”
“Hold my bag?”
“Okay.” I took the bag that had his camera in it. “I’ll be right here unless the cops or someone makes me move. In which case I’ll be in that pizza place we passed a few blocks back.”
“Why don’t you go back there now?”
“You could have a turn after me…”
I gritted my teeth. “Zig.”
“Okay, I know when I’m skating on thin ice. I’ll be right back.” He jogged across the street, the chain hanging from one of the shoulders of his leather jacket jingling as he did.
I faded back into the narrow alley between the buildings and watched him go through the door. This was a much rougher neighborhood than the area I’d cruised last time we were here. There it had been a little gay village, with cafes and bookstores and bars sporting cheery rainbow flags. Here the whole feel was more illicit, from the strip club Digger and I had been to, to the hookers and drug dealers walking the streets.
I leaned my head against the wall, cushioning it on my forearm, and sticking my other hand into my jeans, thinking, basically: Fuck.
And then I got an idea for a song, called “Thin Ice.” It could practically be Ziggy’s nickname, couldn’t it?
Twenty minutes later, I had not moved, and my arm was feeling like pins and needles, but it was like I’d been turned to stone.
Well, part of me was rock hard anyway.
I heard him come up behind me and turned my head just enough to see the almost sheepish grin on his face.
I didn’t fight when he put a hand on my shoulder, and I didn’t fight when he wrapped his hand around mine and helped me get started before backing away.
I took no time at all. Which was good given where we were. I think I said “Fuck,” when I came. I left a blob on the brick, sliding down the wall.
“I’ll buy you some pizza,” he said. “Come on.”